JULIAN LENNON: PICTURES OF HOME

June 4, 2009 – 4:56 am

After more than an eight-year sabbatical, Julian Lennon has a new album waiting to be unveiled in 2009. So what did he do during that time? According to his Facebook, “He spent the next few years living the life he had previously been denied during his punishing schedule. Relaxing in his lakeside house in Northern Italy, Julian loved cooking, photography, sailing, travelling. Accumulating antiques, rifling through flea markets. Anything that didn’t involve the dreaded ‘M’-word.” But back in 1998, Dawn Eden met up with Julian when he released Photograph Smile. This article was published in BigO #158 (February 1999).

In America, Julian Lennon is known for many things, but making first-rate records is not one of them. Simply using the words “Julian Lennon” and “great album” in the same sentence is enough to get you committed. His 1985 debut, Valotte, sold over a million copies, but only 37 are known to exist. Ditto for the album’s singles, even the No. 5 hit, Too Late For Goodbyes, which was too early for the ska revival.

Now, for the first time (even by his own admission), Julian Lennon has made a great album. He is performing to six-figure crowds throughout Europe. He is getting rave reviews from England’s most jaded critics. He is planning an American comeback.

He has his work cut out for him.

The reasons for America’s animosity towards Julian Lennon can be boiled down to three things: (1) bad marketing, (2) bad publicity, and (3) bad records.

John Lennon’s eldest son (Sean is 12 1/2 years his junior), he was only 21 when Atlantic Records signed him in 1984 and released Valotte. At that time, although nearly four years had passed since John Lennon was gunned down, to many, it was still an open wound. Add to that the press’s constant comments about Julian’s physical and vocal similarities to his father - which Atlantic’s publicity machine did its best to encourage - and it’s no wonder many rock fans thought he was trying to cash in on his father’s legacy. (The fact that Julian, a tabloid favourite, also appeared to be attempting a remake of his father’s cocaine-laced Lost Weekend didn’t help.)

Musically, Valotte was a more than passable debut, its catchy tunes adding colour to charts dominated by Foreigner, REO Speedwagon, and the like. Granted, Phil Ramone’s super-slick production had more synths than sense, but it was the ‘80s. However, rock fans primed to expect a new John Lennon were less than impressed by Julian’s juvenilia. There was nothing he could do to satisfy them, short of changing his name to Elvis Costello.

After The Secret Value Of Daydreaming, Julian’s hurriedly-written follow-up to Valotte, became one of the most notorious flops of 1986, the naysayers had free reign. While he continued to have modest success in England and elsewhere, two subsequent albums did nothing to improve his Stateside standing. Finally, in 1991, he took a much-needed break to readjust his priorities in music and life.

When Julian reappeared early last year, announcing his plans to release his new album, Photograph Smile, in England on May 18, his timing seemed perfect. During the seven years since his last album, the success of the Beatles’ Anthology and Oasis had combined to make moptop pop fab again. Better still, Julian, as head of his own label (Music From Another Room), was, for the first time, able to call the shots, overseeing every aspect of his release.

Then baby bro threw a Spaniard in the works. Sean Lennon announced his first solo album, on the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label, slated to hit the stores in England on… May 18. Coincidence? If so, he couldn’t have planned it better.

What was supposed to be Julian’s moment in the sun turned into the UK’s biggest press battle since Blur vs Oasis. Not surprisingly, most of the media put its money on Sean, who had no musical baggage save for his close ties to hipster faves the Beastie Boys, Cibo Matto, and his mum.

The press had to do an about-face when both Photograph Smile and its single, Day After Day, made the charts, while Sean’s Into The Sun faded into the ether. Julian, however, took no joy in the “victory,” telling reporters that he would much rather have avoided the battle.

Julian Lennon has just signed an American record deal, but the ink isn’t yet dry, so he is unable to give any details when I met him at a London rehearsal studio. His label told me that, as his album isn’t due out in the States until this year, this is the only American interview he will give in 1998. Consider this Phase One of his Reputation Rehabilitation Campaign.

He’s sporting a light goatee (which will surely be off before he begins his impending European tour) and dressed all in black - boots, jeans, sleeveless T-shirt. Any fears of being unable to look at him without seeing his father prove unfounded, although the resemblance remains strong. Ignoring the vocal similarity, however, is a challenge, as he has the same nasal Liverpool accent and strikingly similar tones and cadences.

One constant of all the profiles of Julian Lennon that have appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine and elsewhere is that the normally stuffy British reporters, even those who would rather bury than praise him, make a point of noting that he is… a genuinely nice guy. This is true, disarmingly so. However, while he seems like the least affected celebrity one could hope to meet, the knowledge that he has inherited the biting Lennon wit is enough to keep one in line.

To say that Julian comes from a dysfunctional family is putting it mildly. Beatles biographies are full of tales of how John Lennon mistreated his wife, Cynthia, and Julian. His behaviour ran the gamut from abuse to neglect, with love a distant third. It is difficult to reconcile the wise, peaceful soul who was a model father to Sean with the selfish bastard who left his eldest son out of his will. There is no doubt that John had a great capacity for warmth and affection, but Julian says that very little of it went to him.

In 1968, when Julian was five, his father left his mother for Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney sensed Julian’s pain and wrote a song for him, Hey Jules, which became Hey Jude. Julian recalls that, compared to his father, “Paul had a much more tender way with people, and therefore had a greater understanding of handling children. That’s how his association with me was tightened, because, when I was a kid, Dad wasn’t necessarily the playing-around type, whereas Paul was, so there was cowboys and indians and all that kind of stuff.”

He still enjoys hearing Hey Jude pop up on the radio. “It puts a smile on my face. I mean, for anybody to write a song about anybody, I think it’s special that someone thought about you that much, taking the time to do that on your behalf. For someone to write a song about worrying about your future, how you’re gonna make it through and how you’re gonna survive, which is basically what the underlying story is, that’s special.”

In America, I note, it was the No. 1 single of 1968.

Julian nods. “That just goes to show that a song written out of pure emotion always wins out. It wasn’t necessarily a commercial song by any standard. It was about a person, and a life, and a story.”

When Cynthia got her divorce from John on the basis of his adultery, the settlement gave her £2,400 (then US$5,760) a year to support Julian, who would inherit a £50,000 (US$120,000) trust fund when he turned 25. As a result, Julian lived a far less privileged childhood than one would expect of a Beatle’s son. His mother had to work, and they rarely stayed in one place for long. He suffered greatly at the hands of school bullies who, thinking he must be rich, would shake him down for money.

It was on Julian’s first day of school that he first realised his lineage made him different from other kids. “Every time I went to a new school, I was introduced as John Lennon’s son. It was never an easy ride through school, because I did go to so many different schools, and, every time, it was a battle to try and find people who liked me for me and not because of whose son I was.”

Divorced parents, absent father, family always on the move; it doesn’t take a psychologist to see that Julian came into adulthood poorly equipped for maintaining close relationships of any kind.

“Absolutely,” he agrees. “That’s why taking the past seven years off was the most important thing for me to do. After I left school, at 17, it was only a year or two later that I went into the music business. There hadn’t been any relevant part of my life not associated with the music business, and so it was necessary for me to find out who I was outside of the business. If music stopped tomorrow, who am I? And that’s basically what took place over the last several years, really, was examining myself, what had gone before, what was happening now.”

Although John Lennon introduced Julian to the guitar, he didn’t actively encourage him to become a rocker. “On the rare occasions that I visited Dad,” Julian recalls, “he would sit down and play a couple of chords with me and show me some new chords. That was about it.” There were many things Julian wanted to be before he decided to follow the family profession. “I wanted to be a chef; I wanted to be a designer, whether interior or architectural; anything to do with the arts, really. To me, even cooking is an art form.”

Other than the Beatles, his earliest influences, from his pre-teens onwards, included “Steely Dan, Keith Jarrett, Led Zep, AC/DC, a lot of heavily orientated kind of stuff,” he recalls. “It was Keith Jarrett who indirectly inspired me to play piano, really. I started writing basic songs with the guitar from age 11, but it wasn’t until I got my piano at age 16 from Mum - a beautiful old Steinway upright, hand-carved - that I started playing improvisational music. I really got into music from playing the piano, really, not from the guitar. That’s when I started to write the sort of big, long ballads that I love to do, because I just feel that the piano is much more of a playground for emotion.”

Discussing his past experiences in the music business, he repeats the common assertion that it isn’t about music anymore. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the tales of how Atlantic Records put him through the wringer.

According to legend, Atlantic president Doug Morris presided at a 1986 meeting where he was informed that Julian was about to return from an 18-month tour supporting Valotte. “Great!” he said. “Let’s get him back into the studio in three weeks.”

A publicist piped up to say that Julian had to write songs first, as he hadn’t been able to write on the road. “He’ll write in the studio,” was the confident reply.

Julian doesn’t doubt the story. “It had nothing to do with me as a person. You need time to live the experiences to write the material. Having come off the road and being told to go straight back into the studio, after saying, ‘Give me a break for a second,’ and then, number two, ‘I have no songs.’ ‘Well, write in the studio.’ Some people can work that way, but that’s not the way I worked at all. I take my craft very seriously. You cannot put creativity on a time slot. It just doesn’t work that way. Not if you want it to be real.

“I felt I got thrown all over the place in the past 10 years, with the treadmill of the business, and, after the last album, I said, ‘I’ve had enough. It’s bulls***. Too many broken promises, too much lack of support, it’s crap. Why am I doing this? It’s not real. It’s not fun anymore. So it’s time to get out…’

“Atlantic,” he concludes, “didn’t have a clue. If they’d have let me go back home and take six months to a year writing some songs, then they would have had another good album, but they didn’t, so I hold them responsible for what happened to my career, basically.”

I remind him about how the label marketed him as John Lennon’s son. “I know, I know, I know. Back in those days, I was too shy, and I just didn’t have the strength - I just didn’t know back then.”

And so, I say, to the public, it looked like he was trying to ride on his father’s fame. Julian bristles at the memory. “Which was the worst thing possible for me.”

During the late ‘80s, when Julian wasn’t on tour, he could be found at places like Manhattan’s notorious coke den, the now-defunct China Club. Gossip columns regularly ran photos of him looking seriously ****ed up, accompanied by a succession of poodle-haired bimbos.

When I ask about his “drug period,” he responds with unusual reticence. “There weren’t any bad drug years. That was taken well out of context. There were occasions, in New York, when I first moved over there; being in the music business and hanging out in clubs. In a sense, it’s par for the course.”

Pressed, he admits that his behaviour was a reaction against the pressures of his newfound fame and the demands of his label. “I wanted some freedom, and I wasn’t getting any, so my way of dealing with that was just, go and get trashed and have a good time, and deal with the consequences later.

“There was a point,” he adds, “where I said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, not to these extremes.’ Some people were just going overboard. I know my own level of control in life, and I will not let go of my control. I never reached a point where I lost control at all. It’s just that I finally said, ‘I don’t want to do this’.”

One person who read of Julian’s escapades with great interest was Yoko Ono. At the time, Julian was trying to gain a share of his father’s estate, all of which had been left to Yoko. She cited Julian’s lifestyle as the reason she would not give him any of his father’s money.

It was recently reported that Julian had finally made a settlement with Yoko, allowing him £20 million (about $32.6 million) and leaving younger brother Sean a healthy £220 million ($358 million). He is forbidden to discuss the settlement, but I try to confirm it anyway, saying I had read that he funded Music From Another Room with money from the reported £20 million.

“Reported, only,” he interjects.

Is that where the money came from?

“Well, part of it, yeah, but it certainly wasn’t the figure that’s been quoted in the papers, by any means. I can’t talk about it, but it was minimal compared to even that figure.”

Although Julian speaks diplomatically, it is clear that he has strong feelings about the settlement, as he does when asked his opinion of the way Yoko is enlarging the estate by licensing his father’s name for commercial products.

“I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it. I don’t like the silk ties that I’ve been sent with his lithograph drawings on them. I don’t like the mugs that I’ve received. I think there are other ways to deal with his memory than how she’s dealt with it, and I’m not fond of it at all, and I’m just sad that I have no control over that whatsoever. That sickens me.”

He chooses his words most carefully when answering questions about Sean and his new album, but he is still not one to hide his feelings. Was it a coincidence that his and Sean’s albums came out in the UK on the same day?

“I don’t think so. I know for a fact that Sean’s representation were looking into exactly when mine was being released. Apparently, they were asking some of the same companies that we’re working with distribution-wise to release his either a week before or at the same time as me. I know that for a fact. Not that I’m putting Sean down. I love Sean and I like what he does, but I don’t know whether he’s completely aware of who’s doing what around him.”

How does he like Sean’s album? “I like it,” he says decisively. That hangs in the air for a second, and then he adds, “It surprised me. I’d heard a lot of his earlier demos, a couple of years before, which were more just him, and I was surprised to hear that it felt like more of a duet album. There was a lot of influence from his girlfriend (Yuka Honda, of Cibo Matto). Which surprised me for a debut album. If that’s what he wants, then cool, I’m very happy for him. It just surprised me, because the stuff I’d heard on demos felt like they were more inside of him.”

Of their relationship, he says, “I haven’t spoken to him for years, which is sad. Whenever I’m in New York, I try to see him, or, if it’s his birthday or Christmas, I’ll make sure that I send him something one way or the other to say ‘I love you’. I’ve exchanged telephone numbers with him a thousand times, but he’s never called me back.

“The ball has been in his court for years,” he continues. “I remember what I was like in my 20s. The last thing I would think of doing was call up an older brother. But I think maybe there’s more influence than just his own that’s holding him back from calling me…”

The lack of contact clearly hurts him deeply. “I have a great amount of love for Sean. I love him dearly. I think it’s just a question of time. There’ll be a time and place when we’ll get together and we’ll be able to relax and enjoy life. He’s only just moved out of the Dakota recently, to somewhere in the Village, so, I mean, separation from home is the first thing he’s dealing with. When the time’s right, I’ll get a phone call.” (Ironically, only 11 days after Julian spoke those words, he and Sean were very happily reunited when they met by chance in London.)

I observe that Sean, who lives with his girlfriend, has still never really been on his own. Julian nods. “There’s always been a watchful eye over him, that’s for sure.”

In 1996, when Julian prepared to record Photograph Smile, he chose for his co-producer Bob Rose, who gained his first studio experience as second engineer on the Beach Boys’ classic Pet Sounds. (He was 15.)

Although Rose has since produced George Harrison, Edie Brickell, and others, he retains an enthusiasm for music that is rarely seen in career hitmakers. The freedom he brought into the studio was manna to Julian, whose past efforts were marred by the kind of clinical, highly-polished production beloved of major labels.

“For the first time in a long time, it was about having fun in the studio, nobody knocking on the door, just being allowed to do whatever the **** you wanted. That was such a big difference for me, just being able to play and have fun, and keeping that element of reality in it all. As we all know, nothing in life is perfect, and I think, through mistakes, some wonderful things can happen. That’s where realisations come through. There are many things that are not perfect on the album, but for a reason.”

As the son of one of the greatest songwriters rock has ever produced, one who elevated songwriting to a new level, it’s not surprising that Julian considers well-crafted songs of prime importance. “There are still a couple of great songwriters out there, but it seems a lot of it has gone off to the wayside in that respect, because it’s not about a great song anymore.

“It’s about an era, it’s a time and a place, and rhythms and samples and this and that and the other. But unless the song underneath all that crap is solid, then, yeah, you can have a No. 1 hit and you can dance to it, but, a year later, I don’t see hearing the same song again.”

Photograph Smile is dedicated to the late Roberto Bassanini, who was Julian’s stepfather for a few years in the early ‘70s. “He played a very, very serious part in my life,” Julian explains. “He was the guy that picked me up from school, he was the guy that took me to the park, he was the guy that took me on holidays. So, for me, this was my father. That’s how it felt.”

With all the positive changes that have happened to him in recent years, it is no surprise when he admits that life is good. He says that his feelings of contentment, which began the year before, emerged “because I understood who I was. One of the major things that was very important was to structure life in such a way that music was not 100 per cent of my life. Before, it was. Now, I refuse to do that, because there are much more important things in life.

“Music’s a big part, but so many of my relationships have been lost to the business; friendships, contacts, and family. I think it’s very important to keep a life outside the music business, being alive and well and healthy. Because success in the music business is not always going to be there.”

If there is one word that could describe the press’s treatment of Julian, it would be “victim.” Living his entire life within the public eye, he was neglected by his father, abused by his schoolmates, exploited by record labels, denied his inheritance; the list goes on. Yet, in person, he is clearly a survivor, focused and confident, with great reserves of inner strength.

“I never, per se, felt that I was a victim,” he insists. “I felt that I had been dealt a difficult hand. We all get our hands to play in life. My ambition, especially after what happened over the last 10 years, was to finally start turning those cards around and shuffling them about, choosing better hands, so that I could play the game a lot better and also get to a position of control, where I would start to win. For me, that’s just beginning to happen.”

  1. 2 Responses to “JULIAN LENNON: PICTURES OF HOME”

  2. dear sir im a juilan lennon fan also a fan of his late father john so when does juilan lennon new cd everything changes this year i hope 2009 coming out be release let me know and where do i get the cd at thanks scotty

    By scott thompson on Jun 13, 2009

  3. Fantastic article, can’t believe so much time has passed since Photograph Smile.

    Cheers, RJ

    By RJ on Jan 30, 2010

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